Advertisement has one goal and one goal only: to sell a product and make money. These advertisements often help define social constructs and perpetuate social norms that are in fact sexist, racist, and maintain the system of “patriarchy”, defined by Bell Hooks as a “political-social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence” (Hooks, 18). Although many people claim that advertisement has little to no effect on their lives, it is notable that "Advertising is an over $130 billion a year industry and affects all of us throughout our lives. We are each exposed to over 1500 ads a day, constituting perhaps the most powerful educational force in society. The Average adult will spend one and one half years of his/her life watching television commercials" (Kilbourne, 121). It is impossible to claim that watching these ads, whose purpose is to subvert you into doing their bidding, does not affect the way we perceive society, ourselves, and our place within this consumer society.
Advertisers know that sex and guilt both sell, so they consistently utilize sex and guilt to elicit strong responses. This way, the viewer is persuaded that by buying their product, they will become sexier, smarter, more popular, and overall better. Consumers attempt to emulate what they see on advertisements, hoping to reach the idea of perfection that the ad is selling to them. Advertising produces a “Mythical, WASP-oriented world in which no one is ever ugly, overweight, poor, toiling, or physically or mentally disabled” (Kilbourne, 122). Although the consumer is aware that these images are merely illusions, photoshopped and edited to death, the consumer still becomes convinced that these representations is how we should look, act, and set our own worth against. It is this very concept that has made the cosmetics and fashion industry boom – today, women spend 7 BILLION dollars in cosmetics alone, all for the purpose of emulating that perfect woman in the ad who “has no lines or wrinkles…no scars or blemishes- indeed, she has no pores” (Kilbourne, 122). This Dove Ad shows us exactly how much tampering must be done with an image in order for the final product- the gorgeous, sultry, and almost impossibly beautiful model we see on ads is in fact, completely manufactured. We as women know that these women are made up and photoshopped, but still spend billions of dollars in an attempt to emulate them.
In her essay “Constructed Bodies”, Cortese argues that “Advertising sells much more than products; it sells values and cultural representations, such as success and sexuality” (Cortese, 45). We can especially see this in the representation of sex and race in the media. Women are most often depicted as sexual provocateurs who at the same time are submissive and passive to the wants of the man, while men are depicted as strong, tough, and in control. One example is the Chase and Sanford coffee ad below, where a woman is submissively being spanked and punished by her dominant male husband for not store testing for fresher coffee. Even though this seems ludicrous, these representations enforce patriarchal gender norms by showing us how women and men are supposed to act and supposed to look – this ad teaches us that it is okay for a husband to spank his wife for not getting fresh enough coffee and that a woman better be submissive enough to receive the punishment and look perfectly coiffed during the whole thing. In the advertisement for Van Heusen ties, it tells men “show her it’s a mans world!” while showing a woman dutifully serving her husband breakfast in bed while on her knees, both a wink towards domesticity and submissiveness in bed. These ads teach what the role of the man should be(in power and control)and what the role of the women should be (submissive and docile).
The most worrying thing about the messages that these ads give is that young people are a
prime target for these ads. Young adolescents are the perfect market to target: "new and inexperiences consumers....in the process of learning their values and roles and developing their self-concepts. Most teenagers are sensitve to peer pressure and find it difficult to resist or even to question the dominant cultural messages perpetuated and reinforced by the media"(Kilbourne 128). At this age, teenagers are getting a source of spending money, whether it be from parents or from work, and are known for their insecurity and angst due to their changing bodies and lifestyles, a perfect tool for advertisers to manipulate into brand loyalty. Adolescents are told to buy one brand over the other, simply because it would make you "cool". Commodities are rebranded in order to be teenage friendly, like this Russian cigarette ad targeting teenage girls. You can see a young, freshfaced model, innocently sucking on a lollypop while the cool, pink cigarettes are being promoted specifically to underage smokers.
It is completely necessary to critique and redefine what should and should not go into our advertisements. As a society, we must analyze not only what our advertisements say and do that promote the wrong ideals, but also we must figure out what we want our ideals as part of the American media to be promoting. There are a couple of steps in the right direction- the very successful recent Dove Campaign shows women who are happy and confident in their own skin, rather than adhering to what society says is beautiful. However, further steps can be taken. We should put limits on the amount of editing allowed in advertisements, or make it clear when an ad is heavily manipulated, as is argued in this news story. We also need ads that promote self confidence, rather than attempting to tear it down. It is impossible to change our patriarchal culture for the better if our media does not change along with it.
Cortese, Anthony. "Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads." Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. 54-76. PDF
Hooks, Bell. “Feminist Manhood.” The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Atria Books, 2004. 107-124. PDF
Kilbourne, Jean. "Beauty and the Beast of Advertising." Media & Values. N.p.: Winter, 1989. 121-25. Print.